Having a “set up” electric guitar will unlock its full potential so that it plays and sounds like the guitar you’ve always dreamed of having.
But, to get your guitar to that point, you may have to pay a luthier or professional technician for this service until you’ve mastered the necessary skills to do an electric guitar setup yourself.
I’ve provided important factors that are addressed during the setting-up process. If it seems far beyond your limited skills to DIY, don’t mess with it – take it in to a professional. But, here’s a brief on what to expect if you’re researching setting up your guitar yourself. Check it out!
What does a Guitar Setup Mean?
Many guitars are down-rated by buyers because it requires a setup when they open the box. It’s not a fair rating as all guitars, regardless of cost, will require some sort of personal touch to get the guitar in tune and optimized for player preference. It’s why I highly recommend that buyers remember to put a little cash aside for a professional guitar setup when they get their new electric guitar, or they learn the skills necessary to do it themselves.
Why should a guitar get a setup? Guitars usually come straight from the factory set to standard playability. However, because a guitar is made from organic materials, it will change slightly while it’s sitting on the shelves waiting to be bought. Strings can get rusty, tuners can loosen, and as the wood contracts and expands, hardware may shift. This amounts to a guitar that’s not yet ready to be played to its best and fullest potential.
A guitar setup addresses a guitar’s tuning, straight neck, string spacing, and correctly seated hardware. Any replacements that need to be made may be brought to your attention during the set up. However, there are no universal electric guitar setup rules as player preference is always king. What you want out of your guitar is the most important factor when optimizing it for your playing style. After a setup, your guitar should sound better than it did and play smoother and easier than before. Here’s what a general setup looks like on an electric guitar.
Step 1: Adjusting the Truss Rod on an Electric Guitar
The truss rod is built into the neck of the guitar and is there to counteract pressure from the strings. Being able to adjust the truss rod allows you to determine how much bow there is to the neck. Truss rods come in single action or dual action. A single action truss rod allows for only one-way adjustments where a dual action truss rod allows you to both increase and decrease neck relief along the guitar neck.
This is one of those adjustments where less is more. You’ll need the included hex or Allen key to make truss rod adjustments and this is usually done at an access point above the nut. What you want is a relatively straight neck. Some prefer a little relief in around the middle between the 10th to 14th frets to ensure that there will be no string buzz when you play.
Turn the guitar on its side and look down the neck from the headstock to the end of the fretboard looking for backbow, upbow, or too straight of a profile. Do this again on the other side. You can also use a ruler to sit on the fingerboard of the guitar to see how much of a gap comes between the ruler and the fingerboard to identify where the bow is in your guitar neck.
Adjust the truss rod in tiny fractions – just short of a quarter turn should be adequate. Adjusting to the right (clockwise) will tighten the truss rod to provide less relief to correct for upbow. This makes the guitar easier to play. Adjusting to the left (counter-clockwise) will loosen the truss rod to provide more relief to correct for backbow. Although the distance between the strings and fingerboard is affected, you should only ever adjust the truss rod for neck adjustments.
Extra Tips to Adjust the Truss Rod
- Don’t force the adjustments if it feels like it’s maxed out. You could damage your guitar.
- Some guitar necks may have to sit overnight before the neck settles to the new adjustments.
- Retune every time before making new adjustments to the truss rod.
- Some guitars may have the truss rod access at the base of the neck where you must remove the neck plate to detach the neck and make the adjustment. Reattach the neck via the neck plate. Repeat as necessary.
Step 2: Adjust the Nut on an Electric Guitar
Is your guitar still uncomfortable to play? Can’t get low enough action without fret buzz or dead notes? You might want to address the nut. This step is commonly overlooked. While inadequate action and neck relief are obvious issues that contributes to high action when it’s not wanted, an improperly set up nut can make it difficult to tune the guitar at lower frets, affect intonation, and make it difficult to play.
What to do? This is one of those things that requires a very light hand with conservative decisions. It’s highly recommended that a professional do this because it’s much easier to file down a nut than it is to add more material to it later. You can also easily damage the nut turning a quick filing down into a nut replacement. If you must address an improperly set up nut, do so with caution.
Tune your electric guitar first, then measure the action of the strings at the first fret to get an idea of how much of the nut needs to be filed down. You will need very specific nut files because they will differ in size because the strings are different sizes. Loosen the strings and file within the slots only tiny bits at a time making sure you are filing at the same angle as the headstock. The standard nut measurement at the first fret is .020”-.030”, so you may need to file down until it reaches that. Repeat this process for each string, then check the action at the bridge.
- Have the correct nut files for each string.
- File in minute amounts on an angle.
- You can’t file down a Floyd Rose locking nut. Shims must be added or removed to adjust the height of the nut.
- The standard nut height will vary with each model of guitar.
Step 3: Adjusting the Action on an Electric Guitar
This is the height or distance from the strings to the fingerboard. It goes hand in hand with setting the truss rod for the appropriate amount of relief. While there are reference measurements of what the action should be for the high and low E strings, they differ depending on the type of bridge you have and how you like to play and also the size gauge of strings you’re using. Measuring the action is taken at the 1st fret and the 12th fret.
Low action provides easy playability as the strings are closer to the fingerboard and don’t require a lot of effort to press down. This setting is popular with beginners and for most players. High action is better suited for those who play more aggressively. If neck relief and action at the nut is adequate, the right action without fret buzz is determined by the player as fret sizes vary and is why measurements aren’t always accurate.
To set the action, look to the bridge. Depending on the type of bridge you have, it may be easier or harder to set the height of the saddle or to fine tune. The goal is to adjust the set screws until you have the desired action with no fret buzz. For the lowest possible action, lower the saddle via the set screws until buzzing occurs. Now, raise the saddle in minute increments until fret buzz no longer occurs. Note: the low E side will require more string height than the high E because the strings are thicker.
Got fret buzz? Here’s where the common issues may lie.
- Frets 1-5: the neck may need more relief (go back to Adjusting the Truss Rod)
- Frets 10+: the neck may need less relief (go back to Adjusting the Truss Rod)
- 12th Fret+ or entire fretboard: raise the action
Step 4: Adjust the Intonation on an Electric Guitar
So, you’ve tuned your electric guitar. It sounds good with open notes, but then you hit the 12th fret and it sounds off – your guitar needs to be intonated. The goal is to change the length of the string by moving the saddle either forward or backward. If your bridge has a 6-string adjustable saddle, like most TOMs and Adjusto-Matic bridges, you can do this with a screwdriver for each string. A Floyd Rose bridge will require an Allen wrench to adjust the saddles.
Tune your electric guitar and play an open string. Now fret that string at the 12th fret and check your tuner to see if it’s flat or sharp.
- Flat – move the saddle forward to shorten the string
- Sharp – move the saddle backward to lengthen the string
Step 5: Adjusting the Pickup Height on a Guitar
Adjusting pickup height may not be included in a set up service. However, this is a very helpful adjustment that you can make on your own. Too often, pickups are swapped out because players are unhappy with the way they sound. Granted, they could just be crappy pickups, but if you haven’t tried adjusting pickup height, you wouldn’t know if they could actually sound better than they do.
The measurement is taken from the bottom of the strings to the top of the pole piece on the pickup. The usual measurement is anywhere from 1/8” on the treble side to 1/16” on the bass side, but regardless of measurement, it’s all about how the pickups sound to you and if you like it.
The pickups are set into the pickguard or body of the guitar with screws and mounting springs that work cohesively. Get a bit of masking tape and tape it to the side of the pickup. Use a pen to mark where the pickup meets the body so if you decide you want to start again, you have a reference point of where your pickups were to begin with. Adjust via the screws to raise or lower the pickup and use your ears to determine where the pickups should be set. Listen to both overall tone and volume. The final measurements on where your pickups now sit may be vastly different to stock specs. It’s proof that sound is subjective, and you can do a lot to optimize your electric guitar to get it to your liking.
- If your pickups are too close to the strings, you’ll improve high frequency and trebly tones with increased output, but you may risk excessive feedback.
- If your pickups are too far from the strings, you’ll produce more mellow, softer tones but may risk weak output.
Additional Electric Guitar Set Up Issues
These are minor issues that are usually addressed during a professional set up.
- String replacements
- Fretboard cleaning
- Tightening any loose screws or tuners
- Adding strap buttons or relocating them
However, there are other common issues that can be included during a set up, but they do require an additional charge.
- Fret dressing and fret end smoothing
- Repairing/replacing pickups and tightening up circuitry
- Repairing broken, cracked necks
- Repairing any guitar body damage
- Repairing/replacing hardware
How Much Does an Electric Guitar Set Up Cost?
A professional setup costs around $60-$100. The costs will vary depending on what you need done and who performs the service. Additional services that you want to throw in with the set up will increase the cost.
If you’re buying a cheap electric guitar, a set up is always worth it. If there are additional issues, making use of a warranty or returning the guitar may prove to be the best option. Be sure to search guitar reviews and get to know as much about the guitar before you buy and what people are actually saying about it.
Even very expensive electric guitars may be need some touching up here and there. They may come set up straight from the shop, but most will need at least the intonation and action set. Other issues relating to the frets, improperly seated hardware, and cheap materials should not be seen on high-end electric guitars. Hence, very few things should be needed to set up a premium guitar.
While many may question that a set up takes value away from the purchase of a brand-new guitar, I tend to think of it as a quality investment. With a good guitar setup, either from a professional or yourself, you can optimize it for improved playability, incredible sound, and delicious overall tone.
When in Doubt, Get it Checked Out
If you’re new to electric guitars, there may be some things you could try to set up your guitar, but then there are parts about this process which are best left to the professionals. If you have a cheap guitar laying around, you could always practice some DIY work on it before you attempt to do it on your signature model.
If you go the DIY route, make sure you have the necessary tools and electric guitar equipment to get the guitar setup done right. Otherwise, heed wise advice: When in doubt, get it checked out.